Turning A Blind-Eye On Tibet
A number of supporters of Tibet are under the impression, wrongly as it happens, that Britain has changed its policy towards Tibet’s status. First point of note here is that not too many people beyond the secrecy obsessed corridors of Whitehall have seen any policy document on Tibet, if indeed there is a formalised policy in existence! The origins of this misunderstanding, which began as a fiction and became a ‘fact’ can be traced back to an item written by a Mr Robert Barnett,which featured in the New York Times (NYT) on 24th November 2008.
Despite his former sanctified position amongst some Tibetans, he is no genuine friend of Tibet. Ask the brutalised women of Tibet, whose lives have been forever scarred by forced sterilisation what Robert Barnett, or his beloved Tibet Information Network , ever did on that issue. More recently his writings on Tibet display a worrying similarity to communist China’s official propaganda, certainly his NYT feature, which carefully distorts and conceals the true political aspirations of the political struggle waged by Tibetans inside Tibet, exposes his colours. Those wishing to examine his motivation for involvement in the Tibetan scene perhaps, as has been speculated on a number of previous occasions, may find some answers within the British Foreign Office or China’s propaganda Ministry?
Mr.Robert Barnett-Barefoot Expert on Tibet
Like those bodies, he would appear to indulge in careful reconstructions of the facts, take for example his comments regarding the statement given by David Miliband (former UK Foreign Secretary) on Tibet. Which Barnett asserts in his NYT piece (24/11/08) signals a cataclysmic shift in UK policy. One he insists has immense consequences for Tibet and its cause; however, it would seem that he has once again satiated his appetite for misrepresentation. Anyone who has read his previous writing on the uprisings in Tibet during March and April, in which he misreported the true nature of the political objectives of those protests, will recognise the trademark distortions and omissions.
His more recent output in relation to the Tibetan struggle appears to specialise in stitching articles of despair and defeat that either warp or conceal the facts. The NYT article is a further example. Far from suggesting a major reform of UK policy on Tibet, the duplicitous words penned by the Foreign Office display a movement in terms of cosmetics only as opposed to a radical change of position. Here are the key words that formed the basis of Barnett’s opinion:
“Our ability to get our points across has sometimes been clouded by the position the UK took at the start of the 20th century on the status of Tibet, a position based on the geo-politics of the time. Our recognition of China’s special position in Tibet developed from the outdated concept of suzerainty. Some have used this to cast doubt on the aims we are pursuing and to claim that we are denying Chinese sovereignty over a large part of its own territory. We have made clear to the Chinese Government, and publicly, that we do not support Tibetan independence. Like every other EU member state, and the United States, we regard Tibet as part of the People’s Republic of China” (David Miliband Former British Foreign Secretary 29th October-2008)
A short outline of historical context is required, before examining more closely Miliband’s words. The key point here is that ’suzerainty’ suited the political interests of Britain very nicely indeed and served its presence in Tibet. Emerging from Britain’s military invasion of Tibet during 1903/4, and refined via the tangled complexities of the Lhasa Convention (1904) and the Simla Agreement (1914) the UK formally and diplomatically acknowledged Chinese ’suzerainty’ over Tibet, whilst providing Britain’s patronage of ‘autonomy’ for Tibet. Such recognition however was little more than a diplomatic device to suit British intentions, whilst superficially addressing Chinese sensibilities towards Tibet. In a practical sense, it was British political influence and presence in Tibet that ensured British, rather than Chinese, ’suzerainty’ over Tibet.
A similar political perfidy continues to characterise Britain’s position towards Tibet and its relationship with communist China. The substantive detail of such policies rarely see daylight, and remain under the control of Foreign Office ’mandarins’, who are psychotically devoted to appeasing Beijing and ensuring issues such as Tibet or East Turkestan do not interfere with Britain’s commercial or diplomatic relations with communist China. The occasional statements of political Ministers however can be revealing. Miliband’s comments were no exception and adhere to Britain’s self-serving tradition of exploiting and manipulating the issue of Tibet, for its political interest and Chinese political consumption. It is perhaps of significance to note that the timing of Miliband’s remarks coincided with the final stages of a hugely lucrative trade deal between Hainan Airlines Co Ltd and Rolls-Royce Plc totaling $1.2 billion. (Rolls-Royce is to provide 20 engines for the Airbus 330 of the Hong Kong fleet, in addition to a 15-year service support) which was being engineered behind-the-scenes.
Business as usual for Britain's Trade Secretary Lord Mandelson with China's Commerce Minister Chen Deming in London February 27, 2009-Courtesy of Xinhua
Significantly, his statement itself does not express a formal repudiation of any previous policy Britain may have held; it is more a re-assemblage of its former position on Tibet. Whitehall’s dust-coated treaties that recognised China’s suzerainty, although in an obtuse legal sense could be debated to have implied some form of ’sovereignty’ for Tibet, never in any genuine political context was it considered by successive British governments to confer meaningful independent status to Tibet (notwithstanding the important assertions made by the great Hugh Richardson). One only has to recall Britain’s shameful role at the United Nations in 1959, in which it callously ignored Tibetan appeals for support, to understand that in real terms Britain always placed its recognition of Chinese control (suzerainty) over Tibet before its museum-like responsibilities concerning ‘autonomy’.
That condition was violently destroyed following the invasion of Tibet in 1950, and apart from isolated periods of so-called liberalisation during China’s occupation, Tibetans have been brutally denied all of the political and civil rights that defines ‘autonomy‘. Therefore Britain’s policy in recognising China’s ’special position’, on the basis of Tibetans enjoying autonomy, was a nonsense, the microscopic and ageing details of which proved of interest largely to academics only. Meanwhile the oppression and destruction inside Tibet made a complete mockery of any notion of Tibetan’s enjoying autonomy.
In actively pursuing, a policy which has ignored the suffering of the Tibetan people and their claims to self-determination and independence Britain has since 1950 effectively endorsed and acknowledged that Tibet has no basis for territorial or political independence. Nor has it since that period stated or recognised that Tibet is a separate political or sovereign region.
Taking the above factors into account one must surely have serious questions on policy with respect to Barnett’s interpretation that Britain has changed its policy on Tibet’s status. It has never for example denied “..Chinese sovereignty over a large part of its own territory”. Moreover, the Foreign Office has never implied or asserted that Britain supports Tibetan independence; it remains implacably opposed to those who advocate that. Moreover, in not declaring that Tibet enjoyed any political or territorial rights Britain has long regarded Tibet as “part of the People’s Republic of China”.
Note too that Miliband’s comments were a written Ministerial statement on Tibet presented to the House of Commons on 29th October 2008. They were addressing recent discussions between representatives of the Dalai Lama and the Chinese government, not as an announcement to the House of any formal changes of policy with respect to Britain’s position on Tibet‘s status. (Note also that Ministerial details on policy changes are presented usually to the Members of Parliament via an oral statement). Perfidious Albion is alive and well while actively extending its cancerous tentacles across the Tibetan scene.
Why should Robert Barnett choose to illustrate Ministerial comments of David Miliband as constituting some form of defining moment, signifying an official policy transformation of historic proportions? Surely Professor Barnett was aware that the British Foreign Secretary was simply re-stating, albeit in a slightly amended form designed to appease Beijing, a position that Britain has long held, namely it will issue platitudes on autonomy within Tibet, whilst not recognising Tibet‘s right to self-determination and independence! Perhaps an answer may lie, in the erroneous nature of Barnett’s article, which suggest that another nail has been firmly driven into the Tibetan cause and it being further isolated and without; however Britain’s archaic and theoretical recognition of a distinct Tibetan political entity.
The only party that benefits from such an assessment would the communist leadership of China, which would applaud any suggestion that Tibet’s position is undermined, in terms of negotiation, or facing some critical moment. Perhaps too those who advocate the open surrender of Tibetan nationhood in exchange for a dangerous future as an ‘ethnic minority of China’ would interpret the assertions in Barnett’s article as further ‘proof’ that in light of this supposed development, the only option is negotiation for some form of autonomy as opposed to Tibetan independence.
In light of such consideration, one wonders if the speculation regarding Robert Barnett’s motivation has substance? What is certain is that it would appear that his literary forte, notably when addressing the political status of Tibet, or the political aspirations of Tibetans, is constructing a message of despair. His NYT comments, whilst emphasising China’s economic colossus invites, through implication, the reader to conclude that the struggle for Tibet is over, hinting perhaps that the only exit for Tibet’s people is to submit to Chinese rule. Asserting that this supposed volte-face by the Foreign Office will actually enhance prospects for a solution!
“Britain’s change of heart risks tearing up a historical record that frames the international order and could provide the basis for resolving China’s dispute with Tibet” (‘Did Britain Just Sell Tibet?‘ Robert Barnett New York Times 24th November-2008)
Yet as far as I am aware there has been no official policy statement published by the Foreign Office that documents details of any changes in policy, yet Barnett appears so keen to create that impression that he blatantly misrepresents what Miliband actually stated. Compare for example the following:
“Mr. Miliband said that Britain had decided to recognize Tibet as part of the People’s Republic of China”. (‘Did Britain Just Sell Tibet?‘ Robert Barnett New York Times 24th November-2008)
“Like every other EU member state, and the United States, we regard Tibet as part of the People’s Republic of China” (David Miliband British Foreign Secretary 29th October-2008)
Britain has not suddenly taken a unilateral action to decide upon now recognising Tibet as being part of communist China. It is reasserting its position within a collective European framework, and even then Miliband employs a term (‘regard‘), no doubt chosen with minute attention to diplomatic meaning by his Foreign Offices advisers, that implies a previously held position, whilst leaving space for interpretation and manoeuvre, as opposed to ‘recognize’ which defines a more legal and final acceptance.
As noted by a number of contributors on this forum, the comments of ‘barefoot’ experts, who hold influential media positions, can obscure and disfigure any genuine understanding of the nature and objectives of the Tibetan struggle. Whenever a newspaper, journal seeks some ‘informed’ opinion on Tibet it often turns to Robert Barnett. Who has no hesitation to announce to the world that Tibetans are not seeking independence, that China does not have a policy of forcibly sterilising Tibetan woman, or that the uprisings in Tibet do not spring from a deeply rooted desire for national liberation but are the product of economic hardship. Such distortions (which bear a remarkable similarity to the propaganda of China‘s Xinhua news agency), and his recent offering in the New York Times, should be rigorously challenged by anyone supportive of accurate reportage and an independent Tibet.